Searching for river ghosts

This piece appeared in the Suffolk Magazine, as part of a collaboration with photographer Sarah Groves. Her wonderful images and blog can be found at the bottom of this entry. It was written in February but I like to give the magazine some breathing space before posting here.

The moon is beginning to sink as I drive away from my house. Low on the horizon and waxing towards full. A gleaming fish belly with an otter-sized bite taken from its left side. On the radio the World Service is on, delivering news of cancelled elections in Nigeria and trade disputes with China. I turn it off and wipe sleep from my eyes. The clock says 4.15am. There’re not many things that can drag me from my bed at this time but the chance of seeing an otter is one of them.

 I can’t remember when I first fell for otters: started seeking out their tousled tom-cat heads; dreamt of watching their hump-backed gambol over land; their ruddering through water.

Perhaps it all started with Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water. Growing up, I read and re-read it. It was a story that I felt, in a very peculiar and intense way, was mine alone. Although I lived in suburban Essex, Maxwell’s remote cottage in West Scotland was my home. I roamed Camusfearna in my daydreams. I played with Mij, Edal and Teko: delighting in their games, grieving at their deaths.

 As an adult, a deep love of otters stayed with me. In fact, it grew. Most of my honeymoon was spent inside a wooden hide on the Isle of Skye where I scanned the wrackline and kelp-covered rocks for the dark outline of otters. My wife, Jen, ever patient, sat beside me, trussed up against the November cold, quietly reading her copy of Vogue.

My daughter is even named after an otter: a beautiful wide-eyed orphaned kit called Eliza, who we sponsored through the International Otter Survival Fund. Her photograph is still stuck on our fridge, jostling for space alongside paintings and drawings created by Eliza 2.

Yet for all the looking, all the years of yearning and searching, I can still count my sightings of otters on my fingers. Five or six of them on the Isle of Skye (not a single one from the hide); a lithe rope of an otter swimming in the Devon river that shares its name; one more in a mist-filled Galloway pool and another – my only sighting in Suffolk – a dog otter carrying away a fish by the visitor centre at Lackford Lakes.

Most of the time, the encounters have been down to chance, rather than fieldcraft. Even on the Isle of Skye, it was only when I gave up hope of ever seeing an otter that I saw one. Checking a map at the side of the road as we headed to a restaurant, one skittered past just a metre from the car window. He stood on the rocks for a heart-stopping second, giving us a glimpse of water-webbed whiskers, a broad head, deposited a derisory spraint and then was off.

Part of me wonders if it is the challenge, the rarity of clear sightings, which is part of the attraction. Otters, nocturnal and easily spooked, are illusory, liminal creatures, haunting land and water, half-glimpsed in the half-light. To see one is like receiving a gift from the river. But as I pull into the car park at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Hen Reedbeds, I still have a flutter of hope. After all, today, I won’t be looking alone.

My friend Sarah Groves, who lives nearby and has spent many hours photographing the land and skyscapes of Hen, arrives five minutes later. It was one of her pictures, a shot of otter tracks leading across the moussey-mud plains of the River Blyth’s estuary, which prompted this trip. I love Sarah’s work. She really sees the land and as a result captures it in a way that feels rare. Her aperture doesn’t just let in light, it lets in something else. Salt, mud, earth, reed. It sounds hackneyed, but she captures an essence. A feeling.

The twilights are beginning to melt into each other as we walk towards the River Blyth, bleary-eyed but otter-hungry. Astronomical makes way for nautical, the highest points of the sky blueing from the rays of a sun which is still hidden beneath the horizon. Light bleeds slowly down, is reflected up by the river and creeks, which also cradles the bright, white spots of Venus and Jupiter: glinting like sewing needles half pushed through dark denim.

The river here is beautiful. The Blyth’s name comes from the Old English “blithe”, meaning “gentle or pleasant” and there is certainly a gentleness here. A soft coming together of water and mud flats accentuated by the pre-dawn light. The tide is low and it’s hard to see what is water and what is shimmering mud, the course of the river lost in an archipelago of salt-crusted land and briney, winding creeks.

We move as quietly as we can down the path, which although foot-fretted and muddy, is still stiff with frost. Our conversation, already barely above a whisper, stops completely as we go further along the river wall. Instead Sarah communicates by pointing: there a mole hole in the path; there a slot from a water deer; and there a channel in the grass where an otter has slipped on its belly into the river.

We stop to look, following the channel to the river with our eyes. One of my favourite poems is, unsurprisingly, about an otter. Ted Hughes describes a “four-legged yet water-gifted” animal, whose nose, eyes and ears are all perfectly adapted for hunting under water can “outfish fish”. The otter, he writes, does not enter the river, but melts into it; it transforms from land-lubber to liquid muscle.

I stoop and run my hand over the pathway. To see an otter in water is to forget that it can make an impression on land. This slipway down to the creek, looks like it could have been made by the passage of water rather than the movement of flesh and fur. The otter, the river wolf, is a river ghost. A life flow that is of the water rather than in it.

It seems almost beyond belief that England’s otters nearly became a ghost in a very real sense.  The twentieth century was a tough time for the otter: persecuted, poisoned by pesticides and made homeless through the destruction of wetlands, an animal that was once widespread was pushed to the brink of extinction. Thankfully, following the banning of a range of pesticides, including the now notorious DDT and efforts to improve water quality and habitat (this reserve is itself man-made, created to help rescue the bittern), the otter is back on every river catchment in the country.

We decide to head to one of Hen’s hide, opening the wooden shutters and wincing as they creak on the hinges. Sarah takes one side, wiping away condensation from the window and scanning the river wall, while I fix my eyes on a reed-fringed scrape. All is still. There are no birds to shout about the presence of a rudder-tailed predator, no silvery skein of bubbles suggesting an underwater hunt. The only movement comes from the reeds, which reflect from water that continues to brighten with the coming dawn.

The sky is burning now, a litmus paper of colour, the east horizon acid red, moving through orange to the white, blue of the upper reaches. It won’t be long before the sun rises. We return to the slipways to look for footprints, but the ground is too hard to have recorded any recent tracks. But there is spraint. Deposited on grass, twisted into a peak by ottery paws, to give it due prominence. A greyish-black communication poo, rammed full of scales and fish ribs. Think roll-mop dipped in an ash-tray.

While the land is still frozen, the rising light reveals a mass of tracks on the mud of the creek. Egret, curlew and other waders have left starbursts of footprints over the mud flats. Skirting round them and then sticking tight to the bank are those of an otter. The prints, characteristically asymmetrical, are fresh and purposeful. While many prints will only show four toes, here all five are clear: the soft mud even capturing a hint of webbing. It is as if the otter becomes more of the water the closer to the river it gets.

These prints won’t last for long. The tide is already creeping along the Blyth, the water is visibly rising at a second-hand tock, coming from both ends of the crescent-shaped creek. We watch the river rise and reclaim, over mud, around island, the footprints filling up then disappearing. The otter melting away again.

We sit and drink tea, listening to the sounds of the birds growing as the sun finally hefts up over Southwold, heavy with red light. The curlew calls are joined by skylarks, their songs a scribble of sound connecting heaven and earth.

Sarah thinks the otter whose tracks we saw is probably still close. Perhaps, she says, he’s watching us now. It makes me look differently at every bubble popping to the surface, every shift of water, every scrap of seaweed. But there is a calmness too. It is enough to know that otters are here.  There will be other days. There will be other otters.

Please check out Sarah’s blog and photos here

The Badlands of Suffolk

This is a piece written originally for the Suffolk Magazine.

There are hundreds of eyes on me when I walk on to Wangford Warren. Herds of rabbits. They skitter away in heart-quickening gallops or stand alert like prairie dogs. Cotton-tailed sentinels in the shadows of the razor wire and fences of Lakenheath Airbase .

I have parked at the side of a road as long and as straight as any American highway and am now crunching across baked grass and sun-bleached clumps of reindeer moss. Beautiful grey corals that look ready to bounce away like tiny tumbleweeds.

The path stretches along in front of me. To the right are open patches of sand and an undulating line of mounds snaking all the way to the treeline. These are the remnants of the inland dunes that once reached from Lakenheath to Brandon. Now anchored by sedge, they once shuffled for miles across the landscape, dumping enough sand on Santon Downham during the 17th Century to bury homes and acres of farmland. Just decades ago, a wandering dune, whipped on by the wind, blocked the road leading to Wangford.

I change direction and huff and puff up one of the biggest dunes, its side sagging and leaking sand. It is now late afternoon and although the sun is no longer hot on my head, the heat is still pulsing out of the ground, bringing with it a faint scent of crushed pine – part of me had expected the tang of salt or the cabbage funk of seaweed.

I flop myself down to have a drink and pick up a bone-like shard of wood, light as a feather and cooked calcium-bright. This part of the country receives less rain than any other part of the UK and before now I’ve heard people wryly describe Wangford as Suffolk’s Sahara. The Badlands of Breckland.

But it’s not just the climate that has created shifting sands some thirty miles from the sea. The native forests that once stood here were cleared in Neolithic times by farmers who, unable to sustain crops on the thin glacial soils, were forced to continually move over the Brecks. The subsequent introduction of sheep and rabbits did the rest, nibbling grass to the root and exposing bare earth to the sun and the wind.

Writing in H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald described Breckland – which incidentally means something like “broken land” – as a “ramshackle wildness” where “people and the land have conspired to strangeness”.

Perched on a dune, I can’t help but be reminded of a golf-course, albeit one where the fairways and greens are maintained by an army of over-enthusiastic rabbit groundsmen who have created enough holes to sink a thousand balls. I stand up and feel the hour-glass fine sand sneaking into my boots and the turn-ups of my jeans. The dunes, I think, are still intent on moving by whatever means possible.

Fox, deer and bone-chilling cold

This was originally a country diary piece that appeared in Suffolk Magazine

It’s about an hour before dawn and the fingernail moon is the brightest thing in the sky over Lackford Lakes. Although there is little sign of the sun, the darkness feels like it is softening and features of this meadow are slowly starting to emerge from the gloom. The oak tree, expanses of dark water around me and ink splats of scattered scrub are becoming sharper. Almost as sharp as the tangled bed of bramble I’ve been hunkered down in for the last two hours.

I am waiting for a fox. I know for sure they are in the area. The week before I stumbled on a kill while watching a barn owl that regularly ghosts across this field. Picking up black feathers that fluttered sadly in the grass and nearby hedges I could see the quills had been chewed rather than plucked by a beak. The remains themselves had been marked with a pungent scat; a skunky instant-coffee smelling message that screamed “Fox woz ‘ere”.

The first bark comes as I’m thinking about heading home for breakfast and the school run. Whereas before I would have sat tight and hoped to get lucky I have no time left to play the waiting game. The Hoover hum of the nearby road is already beginning to build. Rubbing the cold and stiffness from my calves I decide to investigate. The call seemed to come from behind the wall of scrub that connects the veteran oak to the dyke. I know If I walk round the other side, it’s possible I can get a view without making too much noise or getting torn to pieces by thorns.

I move off, disturbing a sheep who bumbles away at speed over tussocks of spiky grass, leaving flags of snagged fleece behind her. The bark comes again; deep like a dog fox. I can feel my pulse rising as I head for a narrow corridor that leads on to the clearing. He must be close. He must be.

But I quickly realise I have made a schoolboy error. The two muntjacs are clearly as shocked to see me as I am them. The smaller, a doe, shimmies first to the right and then to the left before she springs past me and through a bramble thicket, a whinnying blur of ginger and black. The buck, startled but defiant, is not moving. He stamps his left foot, once, twice, three times.

I realise I’ve never really appreciated the size of muntjac before. Although their tracks and traces are delicate enough, with tiny teardrop hoof prints and droppings that could have been piped from an icing bag, they are actually surprisingly substantial animals. This one is a barrel of a deer; an eating machine capable of chewing the heart from a coppiced wood in the flick of a powder puff scut.

Standing almost within touching distance I can’t take my eyes off his face. Dark lines run in a long V from midway between his eyes to the furred base of antlers that end in a prehistoric talon of bone. From his lips curls an inch of fang. He is a sabre-toothed deer; a teddy bear with tusks.

The buck stamps again and I back slowly away before turning and heading towards the gate and home. I hear him bark one more time, perhaps in warning, perhaps in defiance, but I’m happy to give him this victory. After all, he’s already given me mine. The two hours of bone-chilling cold and stiffened limbs hasn’t been for nothing.

A squelch that becomes a river

This was a country diary piece written for Suffolk Magazine written after a visit to Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Redgrave & Lopham Fen

The water is welling up under my boots. With each footstep it oozes out from great sponges of sphagnum moss and washes over my toecaps; sometimes crystal clear, sometimes coppery, sometimes peaty black.

I tramp on, squelching through a landscape of reed and sedge, towards a line of oak that marks the eastern edge of Redgrave & Lopham Fen.

The path is bordered by grazing ditches and turf ponds, home for the rare fen raft spider – first discovered here in 1956 and now the subject of a recolonisation project.

I peer into some of the pools. I know, despite the lingering unseasonal warmth, the spiders will be hibernating. But the chance of seeing a palm-sized creature standing on the water as it waits for its prey – long legs pricking and puckering the surface – is just too much of a temptation.

The water is spider-free and almost perfectly still; moving only with the harder gusts of wind and the reflections of clouds. The world feels somehow smaller; battened down for winter.

Moving off eastwards again past a waving stand of saw sedge, the ground sucks and gasps as I pick up pace. Today, unusually for me, this is a walk of purpose.  I’m not here to track spiders, but a river. Or more accurately, the source of a river – what Roger Deakin described after visiting this very site as “a tear duct of the earth.”

I check my map. This is it. The start of the thin blue line. The ditch in front of me is the source of the Waveney, while on the other side of the road is the upper reaches of the Little Ouse. Those broad-backed rivers that run east towards Diss, Beccles and the shuck-stalked banks of Bungay and west through Rushford, Thetford and Brandon start here.

Of course, the shimmying spirit of these waterways is not contained within the steep sides of this manmade channel. Yes, this may be their uppermost reaches but river sources, like all truly wild things, are hard to track and anticipate.

There is a sense in which this whole reserve is the river source, with springs and seepages welling up from chalk aquifer through deposits of peat to come together like raindrops chasing down a window pane.

Clinging to a branch, I dangle a booted toe in the water. It seems strange to think of what this water will become, of how just a few miles downstream I have – again following Deakin – swum in its flows; enjoying a “frog’s eye” view of the world; a waterscape of soft browns and algal greens; of muddy feet and chattering teeth.

Clambering back from my precarious position, I can well understand why explorers dedicated their lives to chasing river sources. The fascination isn’t just about becoming – about how this ooze in the ground, this wet patch with aspirations becomes a strong and defined course – it is also about the past.

The source of the Waveney and The Little Ouse is both young and old; the birth of a river and a process that has continued ever since the ice rolled back all those thousands of years ago. Nan Shepherd, writing about the Wells of Dee, perhaps put it best.

“Water… one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”

I walk back the way I came, downstream; through a squelch that becomes a river.